Todd, Mabel Loomis

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TODD, Mabel Loomis

Born 10 November 1856, Cambridge, Massachusetts; died 14 October 1932, Hog Island, Muscongus, Maine

Daughter of Eben J. and Mary Wilder Loomis; married David Todd, 1879; children: one

Mabel Loomis Todd, an only child, was a descendant of Priscilla and John Alden of Plymouth Colony. Todd's father, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, poet, and naturalist, was a friend of Asa Gray, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Educated at private schools in Cambridge and Georgetown, D.C., Todd later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. She married an astronomer, and their one child was born in 1880. They moved to Amherst College in 1881, when her husband became director of the observatory and a member of the faculty. Upon his retirement in 1917, they made their winter home in Coconut Grove, Florida, where Todd fostered the movement to establish the Everglades National Park; her Maine island, where they had a summer house, became a National Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary.

Todd, who was responsible for the publication of the first volumes of Emily Dickinson's poetry, undertook the editorial work at a time when no one else would. The Todds had been initially well-received, when they moved to Amherst, by Susan Gilbert Dickinson and her husband Austin, treasurer of the College and the poet's brother. A liaison developed between Todd and Austin in the fall of 1882 and continued until his death in 1895. Although the men remained friends, animosity between the wives extended to family imbroglios over Todd's legitimate claims as the editor, at the request of the poet's family, of Dickinson's verse and selected letters.

The editing was a formidable job. Dickinson's handwriting was idiosyncratic; her grammar and punctuation were not always conventional. There were tentative words, alternate lines, or different versions of the same poem between which to choose. The labor required a sure grasp of the poet's intentions, but also anticipation of readers' resistance to an original and imaginatively daring language. Todd enlisted the help of her husband, of Austin, and of the reluctant T. W. Higginson, editor of the Atlantic, with whom Dickinson had begun correspondence as early as 1862. A modest selection, Poems by Emily Dickinson, appeared in 1890 with a preface by Higginson (known as the First Series, followed by the Second Series, 1891), who assisted in securing a publisher and launching the book. "You," he told Todd, "did the hardest part of the work."

Todd is less well known for the books she wrote. She first published Footprints (1883), which in retrospect seems fictionalized autobiography. The story of a quiet, lonely man—a forty-year-old physician for whom life's mysteries are cold and bleak—ends as he comes to know a spirited young woman who shares his sense of the autumnal beauty of the New England seacoast and they glimpse a promise of joy together. Lyrical descriptions of an austere landscape with its granite cliffs, wild flowers, and expanse of sky and ocean suggest emotions that are not overtly described in the narrative.

Todd wrote Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), the first volume in the Columbian Knowledge series, edited by her husband. She traces the separation of modern scientific astronomy from the inaccurate poetic views characterized by mysticism, superstition, and terror of the past. Authoritative without being pedantic, Todd writes a muted poetry describing an eclipse she witnessed with her husband in Japan during 1887. "A startling nearness to the gigantic forces of nature," she concludes, "seems to have been established," and personalities, hates, jealousies, even mundane hopes "grow very small and very far away."

Todd also collaborated with her husband in other scientific writing. She published informal essays, reviews of new books, three serialized novels, and a sonnet sequence. She also wrote two travel books: Corona and Coronet (1898) is a leisurely account of a yacht trip to Japan to view the total eclipse of the sun in 1896, and Tripoli the Mysterious (1912) describes Libya's ancient desert city, its changeless etiquette, sandblown ruins, architecture, crafts, trades, and the people Todd met on two "eclipse trips" in 1900 and 1905. In the tour de force, A Cycle of Sunsets (1910), she observes changes of light, hues, tones, and atmosphere at the end of every day throughout a year as attentively as an artist like J. M. W. Turner Studies sky and land. Sixty of her paintings are in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documents, Carnegie-Mellon University.

Todd's judgements are apt to be aesthetic rather than conventionally moral; her condescension toward "village" insularity is tempered if not tolerant. Her tensions are disciplined, her feelings cultivated. Graceful in manner, she values decorum appropriate to occasions and is sensitive to the nuances of the moment. Human presences rarely dominate the scenes or subjects to which Todd responds with subtlety, composure, and intelligent interest.

Other Works:

Letters of Emily Dickinson (edited by Todd, 1894; enlarged edition, 1931). A Cycle of Sonnets (1896). Poems by Emily Dickinson (edited by Todd; Third Series, 1896). Steele's Popular Astronomy (edited by Todd, with D. P. Todd, 1899). Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (edited by Todd, with M. T. Bingham, 1945). The Thoreau Family Two Generations Ago (Thoreau Society Booklet No. 13, 1958).


Bingham, M. T., Ancestor's Brocades (1945). Blake, C. R., and C. F. Wells, eds., The Recognition of Emily Dickinson (1967). Sewall, R. B., The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974).

Reference works:

NAW (1971).


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Todd, Mabel Loomis

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